It lasted for just under a year and a half but, from March 1981 to August 1982, the Kelpies emerged as one of the most frenetic–and notorious–bands to hit the punk scene in Sydney, Australia.
The band consisted of James Gelding on vocals, Mark Easton and Brian Conolly on guitars, Con Murphy on bass, and drummer Ashley Thomson. Given so many of the band’s membership had already earned their stripes in a multitude of earlier acts (including the Bedhogs, Suicide Squad, Swankers, Aftermath, Vic Vomit and the Varicose Veins and Black Runner), this put them in good stead with the gig-going public, but from the outset their shows were frequently plagued by violence, resulting in the band often being banned from venues just as quickly as they had sold them out.
Recently Evan Kanarakis had a chance to sit down with drummer Ashley Thomson to talk about the band, the early 80’s punk scene in Sydney and, of course, the Kelpies’ notorious fan base.
GASCAN: Tell us a little about how you first got into music and in particular, playing the drums.
ASHLEY THOMSON: I’ve loved music since primary school [living in Brisbane, Queensland]. I remember being the most excited kid in class when it was music time. Also I was a high energy kid, my old man tried lots of ways to help me focus -different household jobs, painting, beating the shit out of me… for some reason in the late 60’s he got me a drum kit as part of his trial and error plan, it worked pretty good. I beat the shit out of it every day, some time passed and a visitor showed me how to play a few beats and I was off… I spent the next few years playing along to records after school.
By the time I was fifteen I had it down. I don’t think I’ve been that good again as I was when I was fifteen. A bunch of twenty-one year olds asked me to join their covers band (Rose Tattoo, AC/DC etc.) and that gave me the ‘playing in pubs live’ experience thing… When that band finished I drifted away from drums, moved towns because I had a broken heart, and ended up smack-bang in the middle of Sydney.
GASCAN: What were early influences and what was it about punk that drew you in?
ASHLEY: My music tastes were really diverse. I’d been exposed to the Sex Pistols from a national TV show called Countdown that nearly every Australian watched on a Sunday night… also my last two years in Brisbane I listened to alt radio station ZZZ. They played some amazingly fresh stuff: John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett with Really Free, Nick Lowe’s song Marie Provost, Tonio K and Better Late Than Never, plus up-to-the-minute punk singles like The Adverts’ Gary Gilmore’s Eyes, and a steady flow of the Clash and The Damned. It was so energetic, so fresh… sure did help me get to work of a morning pumping all those tunes.
GASCAN: How did the Kelpies form, and what was your lineup?
ASHLEY: My stepsister was going out with a guitar player. I became life long friends with him- Brian Conolly. He was playing in a punk band called Aftermath, who became the Swankers. They were all about three years younger than me and occasionally I’d sit in and jam, I still remember half their songs.
We were quite different people, I was very much a yobbo and he an intellect who enjoyed painting… I didn’t know anyone in Sydney and highly valued our friendship and experiences together.
He got the tap on the shoulder to join the Kelpies as guitarist and suggested me for drums. Mark Easton (lead guitar) and Con Murphy (bass- now deceased) had been playing in Suicide Squad, before that they had been in the Bedhogs with Jim Atkins (the Kelpies’ lead singer).
I auditioned, looking like I did -long haired yobbo- and they were iffy… I got another audition and drummed the same but I had a hair cut and brought a black t shirt and they thought my drumming was much better, such were the times…
GASCAN: The late 70’s to mid 80’s were in many ways a real ‘golden age’ for the pub rock scene in Australia. How did punk music -and the punk culture- fit into all this? And did Sydney even realise how much of a world-class scene they had at that time?
ASHLEY: Did we realise? No, not until it was over. Still- there are a lot of coals to rake over…!
People like Billy Thorpe and Lobby Lloyd kicked off the pub scene. A bunch of longhaired, working class fucks would go and see ‘em and get hammered calling out “suck more piss, suck more piss!” From my perspective that morphed into Birdman and the Saints up one end of town, and all the rock n’ rollers who loved The Angels and Midnight Oil all over the place, then in the 80’s it just exploded, culminating in the Trade Union Club having three floors of bands Friday and Saturday nights, twenty bands over the weekend, every weekend. If you didn’t like any of those bands you had sixty other gigs to pick from.
My first gig with the Kelpies was an eye opener- a three-band bill and we were in the middle slot. Three people watched the first band, they were kinda’ a poor heavy blues thing… we played second and then two hundred people piled in to watch. I was jittery, my hands shaking when I went on… but the gig went fine. The third band rushed on to get set up and play but when they hit their first note, the two hundred punks cleared out leaving them to play to three people. It was very political.
GASCAN: How did the Kelpies fit into it all? Was it competitive or quite a collaborative, unified scene?
ASHLEY: We were the outsiders. We’d get some high profile gigs with say the Sunnyboys, but our seventy fans would turn up and start two-hundred fights and that would be the end of that. The people who loved us painted us into a corner. Promoters and venues were actually scared of us.
We still get left off era compilations… I asked one fella why, and he said Jim punched his head in when he was nineteen and he’s never forgiven us, the cunt. Maybe I’ll pump him to complete it.
GASCAN: At one point the Kelpies were undeniably the hottest punk rock band around. Even if just for a moment- that must have been an amazing experience…
ASHLEY: I wasn’t really looking to join a band at the time I joined the Kelpies, I didn’t have a kit, even. I did it to hang with my best friend and it was a ‘right place, right time’ thing. Once I was in, it and the gigs started rolling along; I really came alive in it. I got exposed to a whole new culture of people. I got a new bunch of friends, and an unlimited supply of people to take drugs with.
That feeling when you play in a really good band… that chemical thing… a lot of hard-to-define things happening simultaneously, with great songs you made up, and really having an impact on people… well I’m glad I know what it’s like. I’ve been in a few really good bands -the Panadolls, Brother Brick- but the Kelpies was it, the best… and like it was, for a lot of people… it passed through our hands like sand. Ah well- that’s life, huh.
GASCAN: Your fans were notoriously loyal -and unrestrained.
ASHLEY: We got a decent gig with the Hitmen. Our fans added graffiti of a big fat ‘S’ on all their venue posters, thus we didn’t get another show with the SHitmen.
I know about fifty people from that scene and era who died young. Now being over fifty years old I really know what they missed out on. I did save my ass and have had a pretty good life… kids, a long-term partner. I still play and write… I still have grief about a lot of those people.
GASCAN: You once told me that the dole [unemployment assistance] was ‘the Australian rock musician’s grant’. How was it trying to survive as a musician back then? Plenty of musicians love to sentimentalize the rough and tumble days of living on nothing and constantly struggling to find a place to live, but it must wear after a while -or does that one amazing gig out-trump all the hardship?
ASHLEY: Well, when you’re young you’re mostly poor. Sydney’s inner-city was cheap back then- I mean a run-down five-bedroom terrace was $120 a week, there were free food places around… the Hare’s [Hare Krishnas] had free vegetarian food that was pretty good… I had jobs, driving mostly, or I had girlfriends who had jobs. Out of a five-piece band at least two or three members would be working and they’d fund stuff till we got band money. Some people went home on the weekends to eat, or you would bump into people who got their dole check and they’d buy you hash, beer and food that evening. It was never a desperate thing.
GASCAN: What was recording like for the Kelpies?
ASHLEY: We were essentially a live band- the recordings don’t do us justice. We never had money to record properly, and people were too scared to help us out.
GASCAN: Ultimately the band had a short lifespan. What was the bigger reason for the band’s tenure coming to an end? Your rabid fan base or the toll the lifestyle took on band members?
ASHLEY: Mark said he was sick of playing to punks, he wrote the song How Can I Tell You about ripping himself out of that scene. He liked a band called the Drop Bears and started up Soggy Porridge. I was in the first incarnation of the Soggys, but I left when my ‘lifestyle’ caught up to me and I drug-submerged for years.
ASHLEY: I have thought about this… In Australia it’s a small market. Say we’d play Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and sell five hundred records… That’s about all we could do… If we were in America though, that would translate per capita to 5,000 records and maybe thirty cities. At least our equals overseas could generate more momentum.
No one really put their hand up to help us, except for Jules Normington from Phantom Records. We were in good company that year at Phantom- the Sunnyboys, the Hoodoo Gurus and the Visitors had early 7″ releases on Phantom along with us. I do wish we had recorded our songs My Wall and Truro Murders for the 7″. Ah, well…
GASCAN: Finally, what’s your take on the state of punk music today? Do you find yourself listening to any of today’s bands?
ASHLEY: I love OFF! -they are so much better than ninety percent of the new stuff out there! Also Brisbane band HITS, who’ve just put out a new record called Hikikomori I love. I still buy obscure punk comps and check ‘em out.
In 2003 the Kelpies held a reunion show at the Annandale Hotel in Sydney. Several clips from that gig (as well as footage from some of Ashley’s other bands) can be viewed via his YouTube channel (link).
Want to read more about The Kelpies? Click here for some excerpts from Evan’s book Sex, Drugs & Mum In The Front Row.